Why Trump allies are targeting 142,000 Arizonans to register to vote ahead of 2020

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
The Republic | azcentral.com
President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington.

Republicans aligned with President Donald Trump are poring over fragments of data from countless sources, searching for past nonvoters they think could be critical to winning Arizona and other battleground states. 

A registration drive will be under way in Arizona and several other states as part of an effort to help Trump fundamentally expand the Republican electorate instead of just appealing to the existing GOP base. It could be a necessary move to gain a win; the administration has shown no sign of softening its core messages in an effort to woo centrists. 

The Committee to Defend the President and Great America PAC, the two political-action committees supporting the voter drive, are hoping to identify and register 142,000 people in Arizona who they view as likely to support Trump next year — with some coaxing. 

The groups aim to sign up 1 million new voters nationally and expect to spend at least $1 million on the voter-drive program.

Their efforts come as election expert Michael McDonald estimates as many as two-thirds of eligible voters could go to the polls next year, representing the highest presidential-year turnout since 1908, when just shy of 66% of those eligible voted.

“It’s primarily going to be a referendum on Donald Trump that’s going to be driving turnout in the 2020 election compared to 2016,” said McDonald, associate professor of political science at University of Florida. “There are people who didn’t really understand the implications of having President Trump. Many of them would’ve thought the polls show (Democratic candidate Hillary) Clinton’s going to win, so I can sit this one out.”

Who are Republicans seeking out?

The GOP organizations aren’t saying exactly how they determine who their prospective GOP registrants will be, but they will be targeting people using data-mining that has become more integral to politics in recent years.

That means sifting through information harvested from social media, browsing histories, subscription data, income levels, gun ownership, and shopping and churchgoing habits.

“Trump has supporters that go across the ideological spectrum,” said Ted Harvey, a former Colorado state senator who chairs the Committee to Defend the President.

“Doing what we do — and we do it very well — I think that we will have the ability to identify supporters regardless of what their ideological leaning is on one issue or another. We’ll be able to identify those people and mobilize them and encourage them to get out and (register to) vote, and then turn around and mobilize them in the actual election cycle.”

The super PACs will initially spend $25,000 to target potential voters in Arizona, first through digital advertisements. As they ramp up their program through 2020, they will more aggressively pursue voters by knocking on doors, texting and calling.

'I’m not a huge fan of politics'

In 2016, about 2.1 million "potential voters" in Arizona did not vote, according to the "Arizona's Voter Crisis" report by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

"In other words, nearly half (45%) of otherwise eligible voters in Arizona sat out the presidential election, mirroring the national participation rate in a particularly contentious and competitive election," said the report, which was commissioned by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission to identity why so few eligible voters cast ballots.

Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates that Arizona's number of eligible but unregistered voters is just over 1 million.

Those nonvoters include people like Tarieq Masad. He sees politics as a distraction and doesn’t really have an interest in being among the millions to vote next year for the nation’s president.

The 23-year-old from Glendale can’t recall if he’s registered with any particular party, he didn’t vote in 2016, and he has only paid passing attention to President Donald Trump and his administration.

Masad could be persuaded to get to the polls if candidates on either side began talking in sustained, meaningful ways about how to help financially struggling college students like him. 

“I’m not a huge fan of politics,” he said, as he made his way to class. “If people want to vote, they can go ahead and vote for whoever they think is fit for office. But for people who don’t vote or get involved, or get registered, they just want to live their lives without any other worries.”

Voter-registration blitz ahead

The GOP effort comes as Arizona Democrats, liberal advocacy groups and other organizations are preparing to launch an election-year voter-registration blitz of their own.

The One Arizona coalition, made up of groups such as Mi Familia Vota, the Arizona Center for Empowerment, CAIR AZ, the Arizona Advocacy Network and others, aims to register at least 200,000 new voters, said Emily Kirkland of Progress Now Arizona.

In 2018, the coalition registered 190,000 people to vote and centered much of its work on registering young people, Latinos, members of tribal communities and others. 

Andy Barr, a Democratic consultant, said the GOP groups' endeavor will be extremely expensive, and difficult.

"You are targeting people who don't want to vote, and trying to give them a reason why they need to vote — and not just register to vote, but to vote for your particular candidate," Barr said. "It's a tactic well-funded groups try to execute when they can't win as the electorate currently exists."

Democrats are encouraged by the state's rapidly changing demographics that are trending more liberal, and by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema's U.S. Senate win last year over Republican Martha McSally.

In 2016, Trump won Arizona over Clinton in 2016 by 3.5 percentage points — 91,234 votes. It was a notably narrow margin for a Republican in Arizona and taken by Democrats as a sign of a shift from GOP dominance.

"The way it's comprised right now is not as favorable to them as they would like, so they're trying to change the map," Barr said. "The only way you can do that is trying to expand the pool of voters."

GOP success in Tennessee Senate race 

The Committee to Defend the President points to similar efforts during the 2018 race for a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee, in which former Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn won the open seat by defeating former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

There, the Committee to Defend the President identified 350,000 people who voted for Trump in 2016 but typically did not vote in off-year elections. 

Of those, said Harvey, the group takes credit for getting 80,000 to vote who would not have done so otherwise. The group reached voters by stopping by their homes, sending mail, targeting them on social media and other strategies. 

Blackburn won by 242,000 votes. Harvey said his group didn't make a similar push for voters in Arizona's senate race last year, which Sinema won by less than 56,000 votes.

Instead, he is looking ahead to next year.

“We’re taking the same tactics of data mining to identify people in Arizona that tend be conservatives, that tend … be identified as Trump supporters, and then we’re going to do the same kind of efforts to get them to register to vote and get them to vote to make sure Trump holds Arizona,” Harvey said. 

Are you registered to vote or do you need to update your voter informationAre you having problems registering to vote? Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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